Adapted by George F. Schultz
The mountains of the province of Thanh Hoa, which are covered with dense forests for hundreds of miles, once served as an asylum for those hermits who chose to flee from the world in order to lead a life of meditation and solitude. At the beginning of the fifteenth century, an aged woodcutter was living on Mount Na-Son, in the district of Nong Cong. Daily he went to the village, where he would exchange his load of wood for wine and rice; he never found it necessary to save a single sapeque. When met by the farmers along the way, he would speak to them about the cultivation of their mulberry trees. When asked his name and origin, he would only smile. In the evening, when the sun had set below the tops of the mountains, the woodcutter would slowly return to the little hut that was his home.
One day, during a hunting expedition, King Ho Han Thuong happened to cross the woodcutter's path. The latter was walking along singing some verses of his own composition. The king stopped to listen.
"Na-Son has jagged rocks and dark trees.
I dress in leaves and adorn myself with orchids.
On all sides blue peaks surround my abode.
In the distance stretches the plain of green rice fields,
Far from the whirl of horses and chariots.
The world's dust does not touch these places.
The tall grasses efface every vestige of war.
The Earth buries the Court's decorations."
His song ended, the woodcutter arranged the flap of his tunic and disappeared in the forest.
The king was certain that he had encountered a sage and ordered one of his mandarins, Truong Cong by name, to invite the old man to his Court. The mandarin called to him, but the woodcutter was already deep in the forest. Truong Cong then set out to follow him.
The mist was already forming on the branches of the pines. Unused to the rugged terrain, Truong Cong had great difficulty in avoiding the vines and brambles that encumbered his path. The farther he advanced, the steeper the slope became. Greatly outdistanced by the woodcutter, the mandarin was soon lost in the unfamiliar surroundings. Raising his eyes, he saw that the shadows of the night had already invaded the mountains and that the trees had begun to blur. Somewhat uneasy, he would have liked to turn back; then a cock's crow from a neighboring bamboo thicket revived his hopes. At the thought that he must be near some human habitation, he raised himself on his stick and reached level ground.
The mandarin saw a small hut standing at the edge of a stream. Peach and plum trees with young, green trunks shaded its porch; here and there chrysanthemums were growing. Inside the hut he saw a rattan bed on which were lying a guitar, a flute, and a bamboo pillow. On the whitewashed walls, two songs were written in cursive characters: "Love of Chess" and "Love of the Summit".
The woodcutter was seated nearby, teaching a blackbird to speak. He appeared surprised to see Truong Cong.
"This corner of the world is lonely and deserted," he said. "Why did you take the trouble to climb up here?"
"I am a servitor of the king," replied Truong Cong. "Knowing that you are a sage, His Majesty sent me here to invite you to come to the Court. An escort awaits you at the edge of the forest."
"I am only an old man who has fled from the dust of the world", replied the woodcutter, smiling. "I earn my living with the ax, and my friends are the deer and the fish and the moon and the wind. I know only how to quench my thirst at the spring, how to prepare the roots of the forest for food, and how to sleep soundly amidst the mist."
The woodcutter then invited Truong Cong to remain with him and to partake of his modest meal of rice and vegetable. The two men conversed until far into the night without once referring to the affairs of State.
But the following morning, Truong Cong repeated his invitation.
"The famous hermits of olden times were not indifferent to the welfare of the State," he said. "In their retreats, they awaited the propitious hour at which to offer their services to the sovereign. For example, La Vong abandoned his line in the waters of the River Vi in order to serve King Chu Van Vuong. Although your knowledge is immense and your talent is great, you conceal yourself deep in the forest. I beg you to reconsider so that those who wish to bring happiness to mankind will not be deprived of your services."
"Every man has his own vocation," replied the woodcutter. "Nghiem Tu Lang declined Han Quang Vo's offer and refused to exchange his peaceful life on the banks of the Dong Thuy for the duties of prime minister at the Court; my slight merit could never be likened to his. Up to now, Heaven has been kind to me, and I desire no more happiness than that given to me in this verdant haven. If I were ambitious to tread the narrow road to honors, not only would I blush with shame for my failure to keep faith with the ancients, but I would also lose the friendship of the monkeys and the cranes. I beg you to return alone and not to insist further in this matter."
"Must you find every action in the present world contemptible?" asked Truong Cong. "Our monarch is great and men come from beyond the four seas to visit him. Chiem Thanh (Champa) has relinquished certain territories in order to be recognized as his vassal. The North (China) has sent gifts and has withdrawn its forces. Lao Oua and Dai Ly have likewise submitted to his will. He now lacks only the counsel of sages in order to glorify his virtue and to make his reign comparable to those of Duong Nghieu and Ngu Thuan of the Golden Age. If you sincerely desire to live apart from the world, I must respect your wish. But if you will think of the common weal, you will not let this opportunity slip from your hands."
"Your words do me too much honor," replied the woodcutter. Then he asked, "The present sovereign is of the Ho family isn't he?"
"That is correct."
"Did he not abandon Long Do in order to establish his capital at An Ton?"
"Although I have never set foot in the palace nor even in the capital," continued the woodcutter, "I have learned a great deal about the king. Lies, ambition, and luxury are the members of his entourage. He exhausted the people to build the Fortress of Kim Au. He emptied the national treasury to construct the walls of Hoa Nhai. Gold is thrown about like so much withered grass and jade, like dirt. Meanwhile, corruption buys titles and rank and opens the gates of the prisons. The masses are murmuring with dissent, and rebellion flares up on the bank of the River Day. The North has taken advantage of the situation to demand the cession of Loc Chau. The Court mandarins imitate the sovereign and become his accomplices in crime. That is why I fled from the world and concealed myself in the mountains and forests. Why should I return to drown in the tumultuous torrents of politics and thus throw the precious stone of Con Son into the flames?"
Unable to reply to these arguments, Truong Cong remained silent. He departed then and reported the woodcutter's words to King Ho Han Thuong. After a moment of anger, the monarch seemed delighted to receive an honest man's opinion. He ordered Truong Cong to supply himself with magnificent gifts for the sage and to go to his retreat a second time.
When the mandarin arrived at the summit, he saw that weeds and grass obstructed the approaches to the hermit's hut. On the stone wall, he noticed two verses that had been freshly brushed thereon with pine resin:
"At the mouth of the Ky La, poetic inspiration will be suddenly shattered; Beneath the summit of Cao Vong, misfortune will overtake the stranger."
No one understood the significance of these prophetic words.
When the king learned that the sage had vanished without a trace, he became furious and ordered his troops to set fire to his mountain. The trunks of the giant trees crackled in the heat, and the rising smoke obscured the horizon for many miles. A black crane was seen to leave the conflagration and trace great circles in the sky before disappearing in the direction of the sea.
Several years later (in 1407), the Minh (Chinese dynasty: Ming, 1368-1628) invaded Dai Ngu. The Ho armies lost battle after battle and were forced to retreat to the province of Nghe An. Ho Qui Ly was captured at the mouth of the Ky La River and his son Ho Han Thuong, on Mount Cao Vong; their last faithful followers fell at their side. In this way, the prediction contained in the couplet inscribed on the stone wall on the summit of Mount Na-Son came true.
The ephemeral Ho dynasty, which ruled Dai Ngu from 1400 to 1407, is not considered a legitimate dynasty by Vietnamese historians. Ho Qui Ly, the first Ho king, usurped the power in the year 1400. One year later, he assumed the title of thai-thuong-hoang (supreme emperor), and his son Ho Han Thuong became king.
Ho Qui Ly tried to maintain that he was a descendant of Ngu Thuan, one of the five legendary emperors of the Golden Age of Ancient China; therefore, he changed the name of Dai Viet to Dai Ngu. He was no ordinary man; but as an usurper, he did not have the support of the people and failed in his effort to establish a lasting dynasty.